Laser light therapy helps turtles heal

Dr. Shane Boylan with the S.C. Aquarium gives laser therapy to a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle with a machine donated to the aquarium to help injured sea turtles and other animals.

Leroy Burnell

A new machine is helping some of the world’s slowest animals to a speedy recovery.

This is just a next step in a line of advancements to better treat endangered sea turtles.

“Turtles heal very slowly,” said Shane Boylan, the S.C. Aquarium staff veterinarian. “This machine allows us to speed up the recovery.”

Boylan said the S.C. Aquarium’s new cold light laser helps turtles suffering from fractures and arthritis. The machine stimulates production of adenosine triphosphate, a chemical in the body that helps repair injuries. Cold light lasers will also reduce the amount of drugs that injured animals have to take.

“It’s very much like sports medicine,” Boylan said. “A couple of NBA teams use these for sprain or trauma.”

The Sea Turtle Hospital has 20 patients, including four loggerheads, four green turtles, 11 Kemp’s ridley turtles and a diamondback terrapin.

Last year, the aquarium’s big installation was an i-STAT blood machine, capable of processing a thorough blood analysis of a sea turtle at its hospital. Although the cold light laser therapy is not a new invention, its influence on veterinary medicine is large.

“(The machines) have been around at least for 20 years,” Boylan said. “The past five to six years it’s made big inroads into veterinary medicine.”

In a demonstration Tuesday, Boylan treated two of the turtle hospital’s patients: a Kemp’s ridley named Dennis and a diamondback terrapin named Sarah.

Boylan covered the head of the turtle with a black cloth to protect its eyes. He held the laser close to the turtle’s joints, slowly moving it around the affected area for a few minutes.

“We will try to reduce the pain and increase the rate of healing,” Boylan said as he turned the laser on for Dennis’ arthritis.

Sarah, from the Lowcountry, was discovered a few weeks ago with a fractured shell, probably struck by a car.

Dennis arrived at the Sea Turtle Hospital six months ago to continue his rehabilitation from the New England Aquarium. He and several other turtles were “cold stunned,” a hypothermic condition where turtles become more lethargic and enter shock due to prolonged colder temperatures.

Hypothermia in turtles picks up around October, when water temperatures are dropping 7 to 8 degrees per month. Tony LaCasse, media relations director at the New England Aquarium, said nearly 70 endangered young sea turtles will wash up on the beach near Cape Cod, many of them Kemp’s ridleys.

“I think the big thing for us is developing protocols on how we rewarm sea turtles,” LaCasse said.

Raising the temperature a few degrees at a time allows the turtles to recover from hypothermia, a big development for the New England Aquarium as 98 percent of their turtles face chronic long-term hypothermia.

“They actually do acupuncture with some turtles along with the laser therapy,” LaCasse said.

With these three developments, the New England Aquarium is able to work along a network to transport these turtles to warmer waters.

“We also have partners, like the South Carolina Aquarium, so that we can send restabilized, rewarmed turtles for rehabilitation,” LaCasse said.

Last year, an unprecedented number of loggerheads washed up on the beach. LaCasse said that they had expected a few of the massive creatures but instead wound up with hundreds.

“(Loggerheads) take up an enormous amount of tank space,” LaCasse said. “The South Carolina Aquarium repeatedly would make space for us to take on these turtles.”

The cost of running the sea turtle rescue program, according to a March 2012 audit of the South Carolina Aquarium, was $28,115 in 2012. The establishment of the animal medical facility and the education program was $359,463 that year.

The hospital has treated 132 turtles since its 2004 inception, returning 112 to the ocean. Each turtle costs $36 per day for treatment, with the average patient staying nine months.

“The South Carolina Aquarium has really emerged in the last few years in the network as a place with increased capacity for treating sea turtles,” LaCasse said.

Numbers in sea turtle populations are largely unknown but they are seen as in decline. One of the leading factors, according to the aquarium, is the bycatch by crab fishermen.

Both the green and loggerhead sea turtles are considered endangered, while the Kemp’s ridley is said to be “critically endangered.” The diamondback terrapin is considered near threatened and a “species of concern” in the Gulf States.

“Thank you to all the donors,” Boylan said. “It really helps us and really helps all the animals.”

Loggerhead Apparel donated $7,500 Tuesday to the South Carolina Aquarium to help injured turtles and other aquatic creatures. Along with an anonymous donor, the aquarium received a total of $24,000.

Reach Nick Watson at 937-4810.